The adage appears on the side of a Recycled Zip Pouches pouch: Some days you just have to create your own Sunshine. I thought when I read it that the tough part is figuring out how to create sunshine, but this particular adage came with instructions—and they work!
My friend Erica (actually another Sue—Erica Sue) has had a “stinky” year. Already living with type 2 diabetes, at sixty-three, she was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a progressive chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease characterized by varying degrees of weakness of the voluntary muscles of the body. Just as she was beginning to cope with that completely life-changing news, she was hospitalized with serious diverticulitis. During surgery for the diverticulitis, she suffered cardiac arrest. Since the surgery, she is having to learn to cope with the colostomy performed in a hurry even as doctors worked frantically to restart her heart and save her life.
After such a year, many of us would be spending our days attending our own sustained pity party—but not my Erica. On her sixty-fourth birthday, she threw a party of a different kind—a party of celebration for her girlfriends! Erica treated seven of us to lunch at her favorite restaurant, Royal Thai, and she gave us gifts.
That’s right: It was her birthday party, but we got the gifts!
The colorful, zippered sunshine pouches she distributed, one to each, were her presents to us. Inside, each contained one tiny bottle of perfume to change the scent of the “stinky year” and two #10 envelopes. The first envelope held a $50 bill, ours to “make someone happy.” With it were the instructions to spend the money to “generate as much happiness as possible” while “having fun and thinking outside the box!” She requested that the gift be anonymous—not anonymous in its being from us but in its being from her! Her “reward” would be our sharing our adventure with her “over lunch or in a letter to keep in my permanent happy memory file.”
The $18 in the second envelope were to “buy yourself a present . . . from me. Purchase something silly, practical, self-indulgent, or pretty that will remind you every day how much I love you and value you as my friend.” Then, again, share the gift with her as a memory.
Erica explained that what sustained her throughout her hospitalization was her knowledge that her family and her friends were waiting for her, pulling for her, praying for her, loving her. She struggled with and continues to struggle with the pain, the misery, the trauma of her experience, but what makes that struggle possible are family, friends, laughter, joy, and generating happiness. She said that she knows she will never have the means to be the wealthy philanthropist she aspires to be, but in these small ways, she is practicing philanthropy.
As is no doubt obvious, Erica never needed lessons on how to be a friend or how to love or how to appreciate or how to create sunshine. She already knew. She is wealthy in ways few are. But her “stinky” year reminded her, as it did her friends, that our time to create sunshine even when we know how is limited, and we truly do not know exactly when that time might run out.
But the story did not end there. As I drove home from the restaurant with the $68 lying on the seat near me, I thought about what I might do with the money and the task entrusted to me. As might be expected, I knew what I wanted for the $18! Erica cannot be forgotten, but she wanted us to get something to remind us of her. Easy.
Erica is Jewish. Few of my friends or acquaintances throughout my lifetime have been Jewish. Not only is Erica Jewish but she is faithful. To keep her close to me, a Christian, I would buy a silver charm for my charm bracelet—a Star of David.
As I made that decision, I said a little thank you to God for giving me the idea and asked quickly for guidance in spending the $50. I could think of many who need help, from family members who struggle to organizations that help the needy. But I do help family members who struggle and organizations that help the needy already. I sensed that this gift should be unique.
When I stepped through the door at home, my husband, Don, was just ending a call to a friend in California—a man who has been a friend since they were in high school 50 years ago. Don had made the call because he had awakened with the feeling that he should call Denny. I knew immediately that talking to Denny had left Don troubled, so I sat near to learn why.
Denny had been his usual quippy, funny, warm self on the call, but Don sensed that all was not well. Then, Denny volunteered the news that his work had been slow during the last few winter months.
Denny is an artist. His home is an amazing California desert one-story with every surface a separate work of art. Inside and out, peace and calm prevail. He has arranged (truly arranged) even the inside of his refrigerator with displays of colorful fruits, vegetables, and condiments! But mostly, because he treasures memories and people who have touched his life, he has arranged mementos of the richness of his relationships from his childhood until today all around in spare but aesthetically perfect story-telling tableaux.
Professionally, he installs signs. Rather, he installs lettering. Until I met him, I had never thought of how it is that the lettered signs are created and placed on buildings. Denny works for architects who know exactly how it is accomplished. He takes their creations and places them perfectly to be as aesthetically and informationally pleasing to us as are the tableaux in his home to visitors.
Outside work, especially architectural work in a down economy, means there will be slow times. But recent times had been slower than usual. On this day, he joked that his usual Friday buffet lunch at Margarita’s might have to come after he took back some aluminum cans to recycling. But Don heard just enough of an edge to his tone to become concerned. We had been with Denny to Margarita’s, owned actually by Gloria, several times. In fact, for Denny’s birthday the year before, we had called Gloria and asked her to decorate for Denny’s birthday and throw a little party with card, cake, and balloons for him and his friends there! She had put it on with flair!
As soon as I heard Don’s concern, I knew what to do with the $50 I had received only a couple hours before. I knew that Denny was hurting. I knew that while Don and I could not fix the world, we could help someone who is special to us both and, more importantly, who needed not just the help but to know that he is loved. And it was Friday!
So we called Gloria again and told her that Denny had a paid tab of $50. She grew very quiet and said, “I don’t know how you knew, but I think he needs this right now, and it will mean a lot to him. Thank you.”
And thus it was done.
We added prayer to our gift for Denny. That, we knew, would be exactly right with Erica, too. And then we received the following email from Denny on Friday, January 22:
Well, that was a real surprise and I humbly thank you both for it. Not going to lie—although it’s something I do not enjoy talking much about—this has been a couple very tough months. Your timing was spot on. What a great end to the week! Thanks again, guys.
And then almost one week later, we received another email—one that made me cry:
Starting a week ago Friday, things finally got going for me. Due to a great friend’s astute observations and timely action at Margarita’s, I was able to leave the plastic in my wallet where it belongs. Also, I went into the weekend knowing lots of work was awaiting me this week. I worked Monday-Thursday, leaving me Friday off, back where I started—at Margarita’s. Cool.
Gotta tell you, your kind gesture was much appreciated—not just for the monetary value but for the uplifting of my spirits. Yes! You uplifted my spirits! That’s priceless. Thanks for being you.
And, again, the story could have ended there, but it didn’t.
By mid-February, Don had told Denny the story of the $50, and Denny wrote again—just to me:
Still thinking about the wonderful tale accompanying your gift. I wanted to tell Gloria since she was (once again) in on something between my friends from Florida and me. I’d like to ask if you have ever or if you plan to write this out so it may be shared and passed on, sort of like the story itself.
Love to you and your primate.
The joyous news is that Denny continues to have work and the love of friends. I hope that he realizes, too, that he has the love of God who, I believe, brought all of us together—Erica, Don, Denny, Gloria, and me. On my bracelet, Erica’s Star of David and my cross symbolize that love of God and the blessing it is to be able to create our own sunshine and share the stories.